Following the Reformation, it was not until the political emancipation of 1829 that English Catholics were able openly to construct a church in Bristol. Work began in 1834 but the site, like many hillside areas of the rapidly expanding city, proved treacherous, and the original design, for a grandiose Victorian edifice, was abandoned.
In 1846, the Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Ullathorne, raised a fund to roof the half-finished building. A timber structure based on the principles of inverted ship construction was added and the church was formally opened in September 1848. With the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in England by Pope Pius IX two years later, Clifton became an Episcopal See, and the Church of the Twelve Apostles became the pro-cathedral until such time as a cathedral proper could be constructed.
It was to this pro-cathedral that Thomas Hughes, a 23-year-old farmer's son from Co Kilkenny, came to be ordained in 1939. With three of his brothers already priests, Hughes had studied at Prior Park College in Bath and later at the College of St Sulpice in Paris. He served his curacies in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, and at the pro-cathedral. Subsequently he was a parish priest in both Bristol and Bath before being appointed parish priest of the pro-cathedral and Vicar General of the Clifton Diocese in 1962.
Although there was much work to be done in the diocese - particularly as the bishop, Bishop Rudderham, was heavily involved in the Second Vatican Council - Hughes maintained that his first priority was to the parishioners of the pro-cathedral in the Georgian quarter of Bristol. His vision for a suitable building to be the centre of diocesan worship was shared by his colleagues and in August 1965 architects from the Percy Thomas Partnership were commissioned to undertake the design and construction of a new cathedral.
The Council's decree on liturgical worship helped to focus attention at the embryonic Clifton Cathedral on the participation by all the people with the bishop and their priests in the celebration of the Eucharist. The principal requirement was therefore to provide a space where a congregation of 1,000 could be grouped closely around the altar so that they should feel and be a part of the celebration of the mass.
The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Rudderham in September 1970 and work was completed on time and on budget at an overall cost, including adjacent clergy house and offices, of pounds 800,000. This was in no small part due to Hughes's inspired stewardship. The cathedral was dedicated to St Peter and St Paul in the presence of the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Heenan, on 29 June 1973, the feast of those two Apostles. On the same day came news that Hughes was to be honoured for his work by Pope Paul VI with the title Protonotary Apostolic.
The cathedral is the mother church of the Diocese of Clifton which covers the regions of North Somerset, Bath, North and South Gloucester, Wiltshire, South Somerset, and Bristol. More than 130,000 Catholics look to it not so much as an architectural monument, but as a symbol and focus for the unity of the church. From the start Hughes ensured the cathedral gained an international reputation for the celebration of the liturgy. The building is also regularly used for public concerts, continuing the centuries-old tradition of the Church's patronage of the arts.
Following heart surgery by Professor Magdi Yacoub, Hughes retired in 1981 to St Angela's Convent in Bristol, from where he kept in touch with his many friends. He continued to work throughout the diocese, preaching, teaching and leading days of prayer. He was the first person to be buried in the grounds of the new cathedral.
Thomas John Hughes, priest: born Johnstown, Co Kilkenny 19 July 1915; ordained priest 1939; Vicar General, Diocese of Clifton 1962-81; Protonotary Apostolic 1973; died Bristol 1 April 1999.